Friday, January 21

Why did Edwin Poots step down as DUP leader and who will replace him? | Northern Ireland politics

What prompted the resignation of Edwin Poots?

Poots resigned Thursday night because his colleagues rebelled over a deal he had reached with Sinn Féin and the British government on Irish language legislation. The deal secured Sinn Féin’s agreement to revive the stalled Stormont executive and install Poots’s protégé Paul Givan as prime minister. But members of the DUP assembly and Westminster MPs saw it as too far a concession.

Why is the legislation so controversial?

Unionists say they have nothing against the Irish language. Most parties, including the DUP, agreed to the long-promised legislation in a 2020 deal called New Decade, New Approach. It would create a commissioner for the Irish language and an office for cultural identity and expression, among other things. Many trade unionists say that Sinn Féin has “armed” the issue to undermine Britain’s identity and that there are more pressing legislative priorities. And stung by the border of the Irish Sea, they are in no mood to be seen giving up more ground to the nationalists. But the legislation itself is not the immediate reason Poots fell.

So what brought it down?

Poots replaced Arlene Foster, ousted in a coup in April, promising to listen to party members who had felt marginalized by Foster’s circle. But he did not consult his colleagues about the language agreement. Worse still, when they complained about it in a stormy meeting Thursday morning, he ignored them (he pulled out while MP Sammy Wilson was speaking) and appointed Givan as prime minister. This restarted the executive, with Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill renamed as deputy prime minister, but a backlash from the DUP forced Poots to resign hours later.

Who will replace him?

The favorite is Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the deputy from Lagan Valley who narrowly lost to Poots in the battle to succeed Foster. He has the support of Foster’s old guard and could win over the demoralized wing Paisleyite Free Presbyterian that had backed Poots. It is speculated that the party, exhausted by the convulsions, will crown Donaldson instead of having another dividing competition. However, other potential candidates like Sammy Wilson can run for leadership.

What awaits the new DUP leader?

Purgatory. The party is bitterly divided into ideology, politics, and personalities, leading to defections and resignations. Longtime supporters say their mistakes led to the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol and the Irish Sea border. Polls suggest that the next assembly elections will bleed the votes of Traditional Unionist Voice, the Ulster Unionist party and the Alliance, with Sinn Féin emerging as the largest party and claiming the post of prime minister.

Can the assembly and the Stormont executive continue?

Yes, in theory, until the next assembly election scheduled for May 2022. Givan has lost his mentor and angered some colleagues with the way he was promoted to prime minister, but the DUP may leave him in place. Removing it would trigger another showdown with Sinn Féin over the Irish language and likely an early election, which neither party wants.

But the DUP’s collapse, which began with the coup against Foster in April, continues to trickle down to the assembly and the executive. So does the season of loyal marches, which has merged with protests on the Irish Sea border.

Early elections are becoming more and more likely. That could clean up the internal disorder of the DUP, but there is no guarantee that Northern Ireland’s parties will then be able to improvise a new power-sharing government. A good time for a birthday: June 22 will mark 100 years since the opening of the first Stormont assembly.

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